Ukiyo-e, the art of Japanese woodblock prints

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The night after I attended a talk on ukiyo-e by Daniel Sastre, linguist, specialist in Japanese art and lecturer at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, I dreamt that I was devoured by a huge octopus. My dream, inspired by the work of Hokusai but not half as enjoyable, was the result of my conversations with Daniel.

The literal translation of ukiyo-e is “images of the floating world,” a world beyond the tangible, a more ethereal plane which, in Medieval texts, pointed to a spiritual awareness that everything is vanity, everything is temporary and subject to change. Is it a floating world because Japanese woodblock prints speak of kabuki and its characters? Or because it references that borderland of fleeting pleasures between fantasy and reality?

From the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) through to the early Edo Period (1615-1868), the term “ukiyo” was interpreted within a framework of Buddhist thinking which conceived it as the “superficiality of the everyday” — or “vanity,” as you put it — which we should learn to overcome through our religious piety. This leads us to a next step: accept the world as a vale of tears which we must deal with as best we can because true life comes after death. When we reach the second half of the 17th century in Japan, within a context of political calm but tight social control, this idea of “superficiality” comes to be understood not as something to avoid but as something to embrace. The previous logic is reversed: “If this is a vale of tears, then make the most of it, because life passes by in an instant.” It’s the Japanese version of “carpe diem.” The expression was written with Chinese characters in the Buddhist iteration (憂世), emphasising the idea of “worry” or “anxiety,” while the Edo-period understanding substitutes these for the concept of “floating” (浮世).

It’s an interesting reflection on the idea of “floating”, like the description given by the writer Asai Ryōi (1610-1691) in his work, Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World, 1665), which you’ve spoken to me about.

That’s right… “Although my body and spirit belong to me, it is beyond my will to control them. It is more: there is nothing in this world which satisfies me. That is why I consider mistaken the meaning of what they call ukiyo. The future is uncertain but as I live in this world, hearing as many good things as bad, it is pleasant to me. Whenever I become unduly concerned about trifling matters my stomach pains me so I cast those thoughts aside. We live only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, and diverting oneself in simply floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the current of the river: this is what I mean by ukiyo.” [Translated from the Spanish version quoted in (p.41) GARCÍA RODRíGUEZ, Amaury A. (2005) Cultura popular y grabado en Japón. Siglos XVII a XIX. El Colegio de México]. 

The characters portrayed in ukiyo-e are kabuki actors, courtesans, samurai, rekishi, historical figures and events, literary or other professional works, terrifying deities… All of them are representative of an age. Tell us a bit about that.

The themes addressed in ukiyo-e evolve over the 250 years of its history. At first, the superstars of the moment were dominant. People were interested in having pictures of famous kabuki actors or the elusive courtesans of the pleasure districts. Later, these were joined by the most popular sumo wrestlers. During the whole period in which woodblock prints were produced, these themes were ever present and continuously evolving. Uki-e prints appeared too, innovative works which played with Western perspective, confusing the eye and surprising viewers. As the market was regulated by the shogunate, artists experimented with more neutral themes in order to avoid censorship; this meant that in the 19th century, genres such as landscape would become immensely popular. Ukiyo-e was a profoundly commercial type of art, which depended very much on consumer tastes.

Who are the most outstanding ukiyo-e artists for you?

There are so many great artists in the world of ukiyo-e. I’m a great admirer of Hokusai, particularly his illustrated books and his nikuhitsu-ga, which are paintings. The genius of Utagawa Kuniyoshi is simply overwhelming. Whenever you look at his compositions you find details you’d previously missed, a reflection of his incredible ability to observe everyday life. Suzuki Harunobu produced beautiful, delicate images which are genuinely timeless. And without a doubt, one of my great favourites is Katsukawa Shunshō, whose images have a visual power unparalleled in the whole genre of Japanese woodblock prints.

Each work is signed by a number of authors: the artist, the person who chooses the colour pigments, the print master… This concept of co-authorship seems very modern. Did each ukiyo-e artist have their own team or did they collaborate?

Various figures were involved in the process of creating a print. Most of the time, projects started out in the mind of the publisher, who financed production. One such example is Tsutaya Jūzaburō, who at one point had Sharaku, Utamaro and the young Hokusai all working for him. Artists might have successful and productive relationships with certain publishing houses, but they collaborated with many throughout their careers. It’s true that, on occasion, the artist exercised greater control over the process. Hokusai, for example, when he was older, wrote to editors asking only to work with master wood carvers who respected his style rather than that of rival schools. In terms of collaborations, publishers were on the lookout for successful artists who might create best-selling prints. The Utagawa school is one example: they had Hiroshige as a landscape artist, Kunisada painting female beauties and Kuniyoshi portraying heroes and warriors. It’s also true that the intention was sometimes to support the career of a younger artist. When a certain artist was very successful and, occasionally, it was difficult to meet the demand for his work, his disciples would assist in completing the orders.

How can we explain that in the 18th century this art form appeared uncensored, open or advanced, while present-day Japanese culture often seems to be characterised by discretion or restraint?    

That’s a statement we’d have to qualify, as censorship existed throughout the whole period in which ukiyo-e works were produced. Some themes were never allowed, such as current affairs, anything related to the Tokugawa family or the families of their enemies. It is the case, however, that until the 1790s we have a publishing market which is growing and is self-regulated. Under-the-counter works, such as erotic prints, were never officially recognised but enjoyed huge popularity. In terms of contrasting freedoms, this has been attributed to the Westernisation of many aspects of Japanese life and thought from 1868. A Victorian moral code, pathologically obsessed with sexual conduct, led to a drastic fall in the production of some traditionally Japanese themes, and also meant that the academic study of erotic prints or shunga in Japanese only started to emerge in the 1980s. 

In pre-modern Japan there was no word to define what in Europe is termed “art.” How was artistic expression defined? The art history periodisation employed in the West didn’t exist either, so how were works classified?

We’d need hours of conversation to address this last question! In short, of course there were different expressions to describe artistic production but these tend to refer to different artistic fields. Paintings, for example, were defined by a whole series of expressions dealing with age, skilfulness, respect for tradition, balance etc. which at the same time provide many layers of interpretation to viewers and illustrate the existence of a very sophisticated system of artistic appreciation. Regarding art-history categorisations, the Japanese used the continental Chinese model, essential in establishing the foundations for observing their own past, which they adapted to their own writing system. By the 19th century, they had to adapt this cultural baggage to Western theories in order to generate their own historic-artistic narratives.

Photography: Oscar Rivilla

Translation: Rebekah Jane Rhodes

Music: Dr Symtosizer

Art direction: Oscar Rivilla and Carolina Verd

Video postproduction: Iury Lech

Hair&Makeup: Sara Trueba


Main picture and picture 4 and 5: Vintage kimono

Picture number 2 and 3: kimono courtesy from Pez